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Saturday, November 12, 2011

This is not your father's (breakfast) Grand Slam...

Wouldn’t Denny’s make a great sponsor for these curling events?

Welcome to the 2011/12 Curling Season!  Ok, I know, it started months ago, back when most of us were still on the golf course and it runs until we tee it up again.  Usually curling for me begins with the first televised event of the Season.  This year it was, technically, the internet coverage of the Pheasant Classic in Brooks, but as my time was limited in watching, I’ll begin with this year’s first Grand Slam, the GP Car and Home World Cup.  Or GPC&HWC GS, for short.

Glenn Howard faced Mike McEwen in the Quarterfinals and though not always a display of great shotmaking, it was an entertaining match.

The 7th end has Team Howard up one without last rock.  Howard is unable to add pressure and create any 4 foot play while McEwen is able to keep things clean and sits one back four with two shots remaining. 

Howard is Yellow
Howard’s squad spends some time together in the house, discussing alternatives to what would appear to be a hit and stick.  However, this would allow McEwen to blank and give him hammer, and a chance to score two and win in the final end.  The situation has become very common when 1 up without in the next to last end: be aggressive and attempt to either steal or force your opponent to one, at the risk of giving up two.  This exact situation (open rock, back rings) was examined in the early days of Curl With Math (

My assessment back then was that you need to surrender a deuce no more than 20% of the time to be the correct call.  What was interesting in the dialogue, other than the fact it took them so long, was the comments “no one has scored a deuce, so they probably won’t get one in the last end”.  Even said with a smile by Craig, this comment does not base any of the weight in the decision on rational thinking.  The “gut” says “we haven’t scored much, neither have they; let’s head to the next end up one”.  The problem is, unless ice or rock conditions are a factor, their chances of scoring two next end is not related to how many deuces they have scored during the single game or even past several games.  This is comparable to a baseball manager deciding to bring in a relief pitcher against Albert Pujols simply because he’s batting 0 for 5 against him.  His chances of belting a homer in his sixth appearance against the pitcher are no less likely than if he were 5 for 5.

So after much discussion, Howard made what I agree was the correct decision.  In future, perhaps this type of call won’t take as much deliberation.  Contrast for example with Mike McEwen’s decision in the next end.  One down and facing this with his final shot:

 McEwen is Red

Rather than play a simple draw for one and go to the extra end without last rock, McEwen elected to try a hit on his rock outside of the rings, and roll his shooter into the yellow stone, to possibly score two and win the game.

Mike correctly understood that his chances of stealing in an extra end against Howard are not good.  Stats for Grand Slams have shown that teams tied without and one end remaining only win 20% of the time (larger sample size shows closer to 25%).  See “Statistics for Grand Slams” at the bottom of for more details.

Mike Harris commented he felt McEwen would make the shot 20% of the time, which puts it at roughly an even decision.  What Mike Harris forgot to factor in was the analysis of still taking one, even if they miss the deuce.  From Mike McEwen’s comments (writing as tucker22) in a recent post on

“Here's what was going through my head:

#1) VS the best 5 or so teams in the World you have only a 10-20% chance of stealing depending who you are playing. Yes, it can get as low as 10% vs the best (seen the stats).

#2) In our minds we make contact on that in off 40-50% of the time .... and we actually stick it for 2 maybe 30% of the time give or take.”

I expect the numbers showing 10% are a small sample size and Mike is not giving his team enough credit.  I would put them closer to 20% at a steal chance, but still you are losing 4 times for every 1 victory.  What was also interesting in the discussion was clear understanding from the team that this was the shot, likely decided before it had come to rest.  The time was spent on how to play it, not on whether to play it.  Great call, unfortunately poor result.

Joan McCusker said they “gambled and lost”.  Another example of how this phrase gets used incorrectly.  Which do you think is the greater “gamble”, attempting to win with this shot or taking worse odds in the extra end without last rock?

The final game between Epping and Howard was one I watched with speed and determination, using the fast forward setting on my Tivo.  Howard successfully used a corner guard in the first end to score a deuce (despite some great shot making by John and third Scott Bailey), but Epping bounced back with a deuce to tie (even with only 1 free guard!).  This game had a more than normal amount of corner guard play and after a miss by Epping in 4, Howard was able to use another one and score a three to take a lead he would not relinquish.  Even if Howard only scores a deuce, they should win at least 79% of the time.  The three increased their chances to 90%.  Here is a clear case where possibly the 5 rock rule could give a team some more hope of winning (2 or 3 down with 4 to play), but how much is yet to be determined.  The 5th end was a prime example of Howard able to remove the corner guard and Epping having to make freezes on open rocks in the house in an effort to score two (and does), but he never really had any chance to tie with a three.  The 6 and 7th end played out just as they will under a 5 rock rule.  The downside being that the team without hammer, when down, gains no additional advantage over today’s rules.  Must say I’m more than mildly interested in the next Slam to see how this type of end will be played.  Perhaps we need more variation in the rules of each event to create additional interest.  But please, I beg you, no mixed doubles.

I don’t know if it’s Wayne Middaugh’s influence but this Team Howard is not dressing to match their colour tone (very “spring” and most of them are “winter”).  That bright green with yellow trim does not match anyone’s complexion.  It will, however, ensure they make it safely across the street during the late night hours; cars will easily be able to see them from blocks away.

It won’t be all blogging for me this year.  My 7 year old son actually watched the Scotties and the Brier last year and decided it looked cool enough to try this season.  This is surprising given he mostly gravitates to skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX and any other extreme sport that gives his mother a nervous breakdown.  My boy’s curling enlightenment led me to haul out my dusty curling pants (is there a slicker pair of black slacks that you can own?) and shoes and join the local club (St. Albert).  I’ve put myself on the spare list and have memorized my line of “Sorry, I’m out of town that day” already, so as to ensure no actual rocks will be thrown.  Alas, I did agree to help out with the Sunday Junior program and my body already hates me for it.  The good news is that not just my knee is prepared to give out, but most of the muscles, joints, tendons and other items which make up my legs as well.

It is interesting that they call the program “Little Rocks”, but in fact don’t use the actual little rocks; lighter stones which are thrown by little persons, to a house that is shorter than the normal size rink.  When a 4 foot kid starts at basketball, do they play on a 10 foot hoop?  Does a tee-ball player face an 80 mph fastball in his first trip to the plate?  The idea of having 7, 8 and 9 year olds trying to slide/push/move a 40+ lb rock down the sheet is ludicrous.  It’s surprising to me that most of the kids have not become more discouraged. I hope this interest is maintained but don’t believe we are properly setting the stage to bring these young players into the game.

I was tempted to take my son out of the program when I saw that they were attempting to play the adult version of the game.  I started at 12 and given the physical barriers, would suggest there is no need to start anyone before 11 unless the smaller rocks/rules are used (except perhaps your child eats hormone enhanced chicken and already shaves).  He remains interested for now and I will support his efforts, with the hope that his continued failure to get a rock that weighs slightly less than he does to the hog line, much less the button (at the other end) will not discourage him enough that he decides to drop curling for more snowboarding. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Is 5 the Magic Number?

How about that 5-Rock Rule?

The World Curling Tour’s Player’s Association has decided to trial a 5 rock rule at the upcoming Grand Slam event in Kingston, December 14 to 18th (which one is it again, Masters or Open?)  The rule would make the 4th rock of the end (thrown by team with hammer) now eligble for “free guard zone” status, unable to be removed by the opposing team until after the 5th rock, most likely the 7th rock of the end.  Essentially 4 rock means that 3 rocks are safe from removal (if put in the correct location, between house and hogline) and subsequently 5 rock rule means that 4 rocks are now safe from harm.  Confused yet?

Though I applaud the WCT and their PA for doing what many other athletes would like to do, which is have a direct influence on their sport (ask the NBA PA how they feel these days), I don’t believe this new version of Curling will have a significant impact and may in fact result in the opposite desire than is intended.  But perhaps we need to examine what it is trying to do exactly.

Firstly, is there a desire is to create more offense?  That comes with some risk.  Curling is a game that actually needs less offense to ensure a close game, but needs scoring to be exciting.  It is a game where being 3 or more down with hammer or 2 (or even one) down without  becomes no longer interesting, and progressively so as the ends tick away.  If more offense opportunity creates higher scores early, teams will then be apt to stay out of trouble, let the team behind take chances, and capitalize on their risks (when they fail) and end the game even earlier.  As boring as it sounds, a classic game of no free guard zone which is blanked for 9 ends and played tied in the 10th is closer (though clearly not as exciting) as a game where a team cracks three early, gives up a single and then score two (and after three ends we are off to the other sheet for coverage, hopefully).  Imagine most any boxing match with Bernard Hopkins, grappling, pacing, counter punching and plodding along until he wins on a decision as opposed to a Haggler vs Hearns with an explosion of attack until only one stands after a few short rounds.  So my position is, more offense is not necessarily good.  Perhaps what we mean to say is…

Do we want to keep games closer?  Similar to the original Pole Position on Atari, do we want the cars that are behind to have more speed than those in the lead so we ensure a close race?  As I stated above, even with the 4 rock rule a team can quickly move from a close game to a position of Dominance with a quick three and then hold their opponent to 1.  So can a 5 rock rule allow a game to stay closer, allowing for more comebacks? 

I traditionally felt 4 rock was the “fairer” rule to the old 3 rock, in that some edge was given to the team without hammer (2 rocks protected, versus 1), to offset the large advantage the team with hammer is given.  Despite this edge however, teams still only win 25% of the time (closer to 20% in Grand Slams) when tied without hammer and one end to play.  So can 5 rock change this?

I believe the answer is yes and no.  The one situation I like, and an 8 end game perhaps stresses this situation, is the fact the hammer team is, early in a game, most likely behind.  For example, if I start without hammer, there are three most likely scenarios, assuming two equally matched teams.  In order of likely occurrence: my opponent scores 1, my opponent scores 2 or I steal 1.  Threes and steals of two or more can obviously occur, but are less likely.

In each case there are now 7 ends left in an 8 end game and, though this may seem obvious, the second end is the only time in a game we are 100% assured the team with hammer is behind.  The third end is also very likely to have the team with hammer either tied or behind.  The most likely scenario where we have hammer and the lead in three is to take 2 in the first then force my opponent to one.

In the case where the team with hammer is behind, the 5th rock must be an advantage.  I don’t know how much at this point and, some argument could be made that if the play moves to the centre there would be very little impact anyway, but let’s not dispute there must be some gain in protecting one additional rock.  In these early situations I support the rule as a (however slight) gain for the team that is behind and concede it just might help create a closer contest during the early ends.

So what about later in the game?  Today, tied in the final end, the team with last rock has a significant advantage (75 to 80%).  5 rock is not going to help the team without hammer in that situation.  If you are one down with hammer in the final end, stats show a 40% chance of winning the game.  Here, this rule could bump up that percentage but doubtful how much and, frankly, 40% is already competitive and engaging to the viewer.  It’s rare that a one point lead in the final end doesn’t create excitement, so why change for that?  Maybe if we are two down with hammer coming home, our chance might increase from 12%, but realistically to what?  Even if you get your deuce to tie (considerably more likely than a three), you are in the same spot tied without hammer in an extra end, and no advantage with this 5th rock rule.

Let’s move to next to last end.  The 7th end (or the 9th end in a 10 end game), has often provided some of the most interesting situations since curling moved to free guard zone.  Take for example the GP Grand Slam Quarterfinals, where Howard, one up against McEwen and facing a single opponent stone on the back four foot, considered freezing to try and force a single.  What changes with the 5 rock rule?  In a tied game, the team with hammer is not going to be forced into any different situation than today’s rules.  They may elect to more aggressively attempt a deuce, at the consideration that being one up in the last end without hammer is less advantageous, but I doubt the thinking will change drastically.  Today, most teams recognize a blank is less likely and the team without hammer is forcing the issue to have a score (be it a steal or surrender a single).  When a team with hammer is one down, there becomes even less incentive to score a deuce, as they would have most likely greater than 40% chance if they remain one down with but their chances when tied without hammer doesn’t increase from the rules today.  O the flip side, the team one up without in 7 or 9, is just as likely to be aggressive, risking a deuce at the hope of stealing or forcing the opponent to a single.  They may be slightly more aggressive, but this rule doesn’t help them in that regard.

So where does this leave us?  If the top curlers want to try it, I support the effort and wish them well.  Though I suspect the impact will be hardly noticeable, perhaps it will keep a few games from getting less competitive early and make for more dramatic contests.  I doubt it.

Now did anyone ask what is wrong with the game as it’s played now and have we agreed it needs to be changed?  That is something I’d be interested to hear more about and would suggest that simply adding another protected rock will not repair a game if it simply does not provide enough excitement and drama for its audience or its players.  For that we may need to add some physical contact to the game, though no head shots obviously to avoid concussions and excessive fines.

Good luck curlers and here’s to 6, 7 and 8 rock free guard zone (which would of course be 5, 6 and 7 protected rocks) sometime in the near future.